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I Don’t Know What It Is, but I Like It
Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

O ur topic this week is a pretty strange assortment of creatures. The more I think about this topic, the more creatures I end up putting in the category I've chosen: lammasu, shedu, couatl, ki-rin, phoenix, baku, hollyphant, opinicus, and moon dog. You could argue that the unicorn and the pegasus belong here as well, and perhaps even the guardian naga.

These are all good-aligned creatures with basically animal forms. And many of them are a pebble lodged in the nice, orderly structure of our creature types. In 3rd Edition, most of these creatures were magical beasts. The monstrosity type has taken in most things that used to be magical beasts, but there's a connotation if not a strict definition to that type that suggests a hostile or evil nature. As I've put it before, if wolves (beasts) hunt the woods, the people nearby warn travelers about the wolves, but if worgs (monstrosities) are out there, they hire adventurers to hunt them down. It's hard for me to imagine the townsfolk putting a couatl into the same category.

On the other hand, I called the sphinxes monstrosities without batting an eye, so let's leave that possibility open for a bit. But before we dive too deeply into the nuances of creature type, let's look at what these things are.

Baku: First appearing in the AD&D Monster Manual II, these weird creatures have elephant-like heads with short trunks, tusks, rhino-like forelegs and leonine hind legs, a dragon-like body with a shortish tail, and a plated back. Its origins are in Japanese myth, where they're said to protect people by devouring nightmares. In D&D, they live in the planes of Bytopia, Elysium, and the Beastlands, and they abandon their timid and peace-loving natures to combat malicious monsters. Their trumpeting roar deals damage and causes fear in evil creatures.

Couatl: Giant snakes with feathered wings, the couatls live in jungle regions. They're highly intelligent and cast spells as both clerics and wizards. They're extremely rare and often revered as divine, which might be a nod to the fact that they were inspired by the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who is sometimes depicted as a feathered serpent in art.

Hollyphant: Like the baku, the hollyphant first appeared in the Monster Manual II. It is, I'm a little sorry to say, a 2-foot-long elephant with golden fur and wings, native to the upper planes. Its alignment, "good (lawful)," suggests Bytopia. (Somehow, when this book came out in 1983, I was so excited to discover creatures native to the upper planes that the hollyphant and baku seemed really cool to me.) They're messengers and helpers of the gods, with powerful magical abilities to help them defeat evil foes that stand in their way. Their tusks can produce trumpets with the effects of a horn of blasting, drums of deafening, or "sun-sparkles" that deal radiant damage to fiends and undead. They can heal, flame strike, raise dead, and banish fiends. Yes, really. I am not aware of any roots of this creature in folklore or myth.

Ki-rin: A horselike creature with a gold coat, a mane and tail of darker gold, and a horn and hooves of golden pink, the ki-rin is a good-aligned creature that dwells "amongst the clouds and behind the winds." They are obviously related to the Chinese spirit more properly transcribed as qilin, which is said to appear when a wise sage or illustrious ruler enters or leaves the world. In D&D, they aid humans only in times of great need, when evil threatens the world. They cast spells as high-level wizards, have psionic ability to boot, and have innate magical abilities to wind walk, call lightning, summon weather, assume gaseous form, and so on.

Lammasu: A winged lion with a human head, a lammasu looks an awful lot like an androsphinx. It's kind and friendly, and it aids and protects lawful good people. It can turn invisible, use dimension door, ward against evil, and cast cleric spells. Its origin lies in the ancient Near East, where (like the shedu) it's often carved in stone as a guardian creature. If you think a "cherub" is a little angel that resembles a baby, think again—the cherubim of the Hebrew scriptures originally were probably more like lammasu.

Moon Dog: Another native of Elysium, the moon dog looks like a great wolfhound with a vaguely human head and prehensile front paws. Despite its sinister appearance, it hunts evil predators in the night to protect humankind. They serve good deities and powerful angels. Its baying causes evil creatures to flee in fear, and multiple moon dogs can actually cause damage to evil beings with their howling. Their magical powers involve illusion, light, darkness, and deception, while it itself has tremendously keen senses that keep it from being duped. (In my column on dogs and cats, the moon dog did not get a lot of love in the polls, by the way.)

Opinicus: OK, even 15-year-old James thought this one was weird when Monster Manual II came out. It has the body and neck of a camel, the hind legs and tail of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the face and front legs/hands of a monkey. It lives in old ruins in the desert, and it is known for its beneficial acts and friendly disposition. Watch out, though! It also loved to tease and joke. It is part monkey, after all. It can cast spells like a cleric, and it has a gaze attack just like the sun-sparkles of the hollyphant. Again, I don't think this guy has any mythic roots (except that apparently a griffon with leonine forelegs was called an opinicus by at least one medieval herald).

Phoenix: By comparison, a bird that periodically dies in fire and is reborn from the ashes seems quite straightforward. According to the AD&D Monster Manual II, it's native to Elysium and rarely seen on the Material Plane. It looks like an oversized peacock with a longer beak and bright flame-colored plumage, and it has tons of magical abilities, including some fire effects. Most notably, when in dire straits it can surround itself with a blazing holocaust that destroys it, but deals terrible damage to its nearby foes. Naturally, a gem-like egg is left in its place.

Shedu: A winged bull with a human head, the shedu is another Near Eastern guardian figure, like the lammasu. They have significant psionic ability and not much else except their bludgeoning hooves, but they use what they have to "further the ends of lawful good" as they travel the world.

So what are these things?

Some of them are clearly celestials, originating in the upper planes. The baku, the hollyphant, the moon dog, and the phoenix are all said to originate up there in the neighborhood of Elysium and Bytopia (the Twin Paradises). But the rest, while most of them can travel the planes, are described as if they're natives of the world: couatls live in jungles, ki-rin live among the clouds, lammasu live in warm regions, opinicuses (opinici?) live in the desert, and shedu travel the world. Are they monstrosities? Fey? Celestials encased in mortal flesh (as I proposed for the pegasus)?

My inclination is to say that they're all celestials, native to the upper planes. Even the ones that haven't explicitly dwelled there in D&D before have strong mythological links to deities and angels: Lammasu and shedu are basically minor divinities themselves, couatls are related to an Aztec god, and the qilin (ki-rin) is sometimes described as a pet of the gods.

I think these creatures are distinguished from the celestial races of the upper planes—the angels, archons, guardinals, and eladrins—by their animal-like nature. They're not people, though they're more intelligent than many people. They sometimes serve as mounts or pull chariots, they stand watch like guard dogs, and they carry messages or run errands for more powerful creatures. Maybe thinking of them as pets isn't too far off—very smart, very beloved pets of powerful, benevolent beings.

When we were working on 4th Edition, we tossed around a concept that I think works really well for a lot of these monsters: the idea of the immortal guardian. It's a useful concept in D&D, because it allows you to have creatures in newly opened, ancient tombs besides undead and constructs. Basically, these would be creatures placed as guardians over sacred places. And even though they're good, they can still get in your way, because they're set on acting as guardians even if the need for their guardianship has long passed. This role works great if these creatures are celestials and therefore immune to aging. And it seems to fit the lammasu and shedu particularly well—maybe the couatl as well.

What Do You Think?

Lots of questions remain about these guys that I didn't really delve into. Let's turn to our studio audience for some answers!

Previous Poll Results

How well do the cults of Demogorgon described here fit with your sense of the worship of the Prince of Demons in the D&D world?
1—Terrible: Keep your Cthulhu out of my Demogorgon. 149 10.7%
2—Pretty bad: I don't see much of a resemblance. 62 4.4%
3—So-so: It makes sense, but it doesn't grab me. 243 17.4%
4—Pretty good: I can see using such a thing in my game. 588 42.1%
5—Awesome: This is what I've always wanted from Demogorgon in the game. 354 25.4%
Total 1396 100.0%

How well do the cults of Baphomet described here fit with your sense of the Horned King’s worship in the D&D world?
1—Terrible: Keep your Mr. Hyde out of my Baphomet. 45 3.3%
2—Pretty bad: I don't see much of a resemblance. 43 3.2%
3—So-so: It makes sense, but it doesn't grab me. 259 19.1%
4—Pretty good: I can see using such a thing in my game. 656 48.4%
5—Awesome: This is what I've always wanted from Baphomet in the game. 352 26.0%
Total 1355 100.0%

How well do the cults of Graz’zt described here fit with your sense of the Dark Prince’s worship in the D&D world?
1—Terrible: Keep your Salem witches out of my Graz'zt. 53 3.9%
2—Pretty bad: I don't see much of a resemblance. 30 2.2%
3—So-so: It makes sense, but it doesn't grab me. 284 20.8%
4—Pretty good: I can see using such a thing in my game. 599 43.9%
5—Awesome: This is what I've always wanted from Graz'zt in the game. 398 29.2%
Total 1364 100.0%

Do you feel like these three cults are distinct and recognizable? If you came across one of the cults, could you tell which demon prince it served?
No, they blur together too much. 30 2.1%
I guess, but they could be better differentiated. 280 19.8%
Yes, they feel like three distinct entities in the world. 1103 78.1%
Total 1413 100.0%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
If all of those creatures, plus unicorn and pegasus are celestial, you don't think that the world will be a little filled of celestial and half-celestial offspring?
Despite the good idea to have immortal guardians other than undead or construct, if deities want some immortal guardians, they simply give to the creature of choice the "gift" of immortality.
If you love the idea that all these benevolent creatures are on the material plane to help mortals against evil, maybe even aasimar are not so rare and can be placed to default playing races.
It seems too pervasive to me, and I think is better to give to some of these magical beasts an option for an "holy" version, immortal and more strong than the base creature.

To ending, moon dog seems too similar to lupinal of 3rd edition, and opinicus can be burned.
Posted By: Eilistraecomeback (9/25/2013 6:33:46 PM)